Photographer Michael Kolster, our issue 18 cover artist, has been busy since his series of ambrotypes formed one of our special rotating covers back in 2012. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2013, published Take Me to the River in 2016, and has been hard at work on a new series that also shapes his latest book, L.A. Rivers, out this summer. He graciously agreed to answer my questions about the new book.
The cover of Memorious Issue 18, launched in 2012, is composed of a series of five of your breathtaking ambrotypes of the James River. These photographs were drawn from a project you were working on when we met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where you spent many of your days out in the field, photographing the river. You also wrote a companion piece for the magazine that gave our readers a little understanding and history of the process you use in your photographs. In 2016, you published Take Me to the River: Photographs of Atlantic Rivers (George F Thompson Publishing), which explores four rivers, including the James. Since then, you have been working on a new book, L.A. River, which will be available in early summer of 2019. Can you tell us about this new project?
The L.A. River project is an outgrowth of my work on the east coast. The genesis of photographing rivers came from looking out my Brunswick, Maine, studio window at the Androscoggin River more than ten years ago. It expanded to include three other east coast rivers with similar historical trajectories (the Schuykill, James, and Savannah) of decades of industrial adulteration and then partial but significant cleanup in the wake of the 1972 Clean Water Act. My interest in them came from how their reputations as sewers, and therefore unapproachable, lingered in the face of evidence to the contrary, if one were to visit and observe them now. Once biologically dead, they support a range of wildlife (fish and raptors down to the microorganisms supporting the food chain). This is at least part of the story behind these rivers (and many others running through most of our backyards), but the story that really interested me is how our idea of places can often obscure how we choose to view them. It causes me to ask how much of our surroundings are hidden in plain view, either due to habit or preconceptions.
So, to address your question (finally), the L. A. River drew me in due to how it occupies a central location in our country’s second-largest city, running right through its downtown, but seems to remain invisible, or at least unrecognizable, to most. Its concrete channelization by the Army Corps of Engineers after devastating flooding 1938 is largely responsible for this. I wanted to ask the question, can the channelized L. A. River be seen or experienced as a veritable river if its course is fixed in concrete and containing a persistent, albeit low, flow of water most of the year? Are there ways to see and experience the river that would reclaim or at least persuade people to see it and, perhaps, even to gather there to know each other and their city better?
The answer to that is partially contained in 1. above, but it also appealed initially (and still does) as a comparison of east and west coast experiences of light and space. I lived in San Francisco for eight years and loved it: the light and its glow, the smells, the sense of surprise the variable topography inspired. It felt like the land and our human presence on it was engaged in an dynamic conversation in which both actors had a voice. Maybe because I grew up on the east coast and in upstate New York, where we, as European colonizers, have a longer record of occupation, and the geology is older, more worn down, I see the forces shaping the west coast as less fixed or predetermined. As a part of my interest in the ongoing conversation with the places we live in, the channelization of the L. A. River remains a fascinating human response to the realities of the area’s hydrology and topography. And all this in one of the country’s largest and most important cities.
What drives you to continue working with the ambrotype, and how has your approach to the ambrotype evolved in this new project?
I am not sure if I will keep working with the process after the river projects. I love working with it for all the surprises it gives me – it is so hard to predict what an image will look like due to its limited sensitivity to visible light and the volatility of the chemistry involved. Much like my interest in the conversation between the “natural” realities of place and our desires to corral them, the struggle between the physical demands of process and my desire to control them is a large part of the allure. What excited me so much when I began to make ambrotypes of rivers was the discovery of how the plate begins to embody as well as describe its subject. The dynamic qualities of the wet plate process, in which images are hand made on sight, map wonderfully onto those of a flowing river and its effect on the shape and look of its bed and banks. In other words, the sediments suspended in the water and comprising the riverbed are mirrored in the flowing deposits of silver that come to rest on glass plates after they are sensitized, exposed, and developed.
As I have worked with them I can’t get used to how strange and mysterious ambrotypes are: As faint, barely perceptible negatives on glass they turn into a positive (like magic!) when viewed in front of a black background. To my surprise I discovered I could scan them with good results, despite their very limited utility to print with in an analogue darkroom. I found myself in a confusing position: the plates and the digital prints from scans appear as very different objects, even though they presented the same “image.” For most viewers the prints are familiar as photographs, whereas the glass plate is less so, resembling more a piece of sculpture, a unique object requiring special mounting and illumination.
Another aspect of working with ambrotypes that has impressed me is that not everyone is as enthralled with the object as I am, sometimes preferring instead to view a print of the image. For some it seems that the print is friendlier and easier to characterize (and more easily framed or stored) while the ambrotype resides at the edge of the familiar, perhaps too odd for some with its idiosyncratic presentation, inconsistent tonalities, and bold claim as one-of-a-kind.
When I sat down to write a short essay for the L. A. book, I came to realize that accepting the oddness of the ambrotype presents a similar challenge faced by visitor to the banks of the L. A. River. Can something that resides outside of our accustomed frame of reference, like the shimmering, faint deposits of silver on a sheet of glass, both simultaneously a positive and a negative, still be called a photograph? Likewise, can water flowing down a concrete channel still be called a river? I began to see both the ambrotype and the L. A. River as outliers, that test our ability to see around or through the preconceptions we assign to the people, places, and situations we encounter daily. When it rains, as it can with a vengeance in Southern California, the L. A. River roars to life and threatens to overrun its banks, as it has many times in history and to devastating effects. And the ambrotype, full of flaws and oddities, also offers us a chance to step outside a common viewing experience.
Pushing the comparison further, I considered the river and the ambrotype as changelings. The changeling commonly refers to a child, often appearing in mediaeval literature, visited by deformities or odd behavior; a rumor persists that it was switched at birth by a troll or fairies, which is usually confirmed by a local sage, who advises the family to throw it in the river. The ambrotype was historically displaced, thrown in to the river, as they say, soon after its invention in 1851 when photographers discovered that a plate with more silver on it, deposited by more exposure in camera and more development immediately after, to the point where it is almost opaque, could be printed onto albumen paper in limitless quantities. The modern photograph was born, at least in the sense that it pivoted away from existing as a discrete object toward an image that can be reproduced without end. Yet, ironically, these days the handmade photograph as object is resurgent, perhaps deriving its current allure as a counterpoint to the dull standardization we all endure from viewing the same screens and the deep isolation resulting from “sharing” a snap of our latest meal with virtual “friends” on social networks.
During the last century, after countless floods and damage to a growing city, twentieth-century engineering focussed its hubris on the intractable L. A. River. Instead of being thrown in the river, this riverine changeling was given a straightjacket of concrete. Yet, today, as extreme weather ramps up as the climate changes, the river will convey water to the sea; water will go where it must. The question is not whether the flows of water will stay within its channel, but what we will do when they overwhelm it.
What role does research play in your work on these series? Do you do a lot of advance research to prepare for your work on location?
I mostly stumble onto subjects, which makes it feel like they choose me as much as I choose them. For instance, after shooting the Androscoggin in my next of the woods for a while, I decided to see if the story of this river was similar to others. I ended up photographing the James River next because a friend was teaching in Richmond and I wanted to visit him, and, to cinch the deal, shortly after I received a residency at VCCA in Amherst, VA, which is upriver from Richmond. I am glad I did, because at VCCA I got to meet you!
Way back an acquaintance of mine, a painter named James Dawson, said that luck is the intersection of preparation and desire. I have been very lucky to have stumbled on the wet plate process just as I was searching around (stumbling, really) for a way to make photographs that would reveal their complex histories and broader appeal as metaphors.
I tend to trust results when they happen in ways I cannot predict. Weirdly I hope to get lost as I work, believing that if I can be as free of expectations as possible then I might more clearly see what is in front of me. With the wet plate process, there are so many variables and such limited chances to exert control it provided me with an ideal means to get lost. What is so much fun is how often I am delighted with the results – which may be simply that I don’t have immediate expectations for what I should be making and can then be more accepting of what appears and how it looks.
I realize that this is vague. When I visited L. A. I did not do much advanced work. But to be fair, I did secure an assistant locally to help me with some days of shooting (more about that in 5. below). And before I drove my van full of chemicals and equipment out to LA, I talked to Jenny Price, a writer and activist who knows the river well and put together a wonderful deck of faux oversized playing cards as part of program called Play the LA River (https://playthelariver.com). Jenny had some very useful advice about specific access points to the river – and encouraged me to pick up a copy of the card deck. I did get it and I am so glad I did. Every card (there are 51, corresponding to the number of miles the river runs to the sea) offers info about a specific access point to or view of the river. It was my bible. Each day as I headed out to shoot, though, I did so with no program or idea of where I would go. I bounced around on a whim, knowing that for the time I was there I needed to to see and frame the most characteristic aspects over most of its length from source to sea.
Your process involves substantial equipment and time. What are some of the challenges this presents when dealing with both rural and urban river settings?
The constraints of the process have turned out to be some of its strongest selling points. I lug hundreds of pounds of equipment and chemistry and glass and water to the river. I set up a makeshift camp by the river’s channel. This means that I can only access points that are easy to get to by van. These are places that anyone can access, places that are not “special” or restricted or hard to find. They are handicap accessible. They are views we all hold in common, that we all share. I love this.
In rural settings on calm sunny days working this way is a joy, because often I am in a place for hours; I have a chance to watch the light change and trace new photographs as appearances shift in it. In urban settings it can be a bit more fraught. My dark box (a roughly 3’ h x 3’ w x 2’ d box on a stand with an open front and shroud) and other equipment for preparing, sensitizing, developing, clearing and holding plates comprise the my “camp,” which is often can be some distance from my 8” x 10” view camera on its tripod. Before I prepare a plate I have to frame and focus a view in the camera, and leave it there as I go back to the dark box to prepare a plate. This means I have to run with my sensitized plate from the dark box to the camera and back – and also that at any point I am either away from my camp or away from my camera for decent periods of time. In urban settings it is disconcerting to shroud myself in my dark box to prepare or develop a plate as my camera remains out of my sight on its tripod for minutes at a time, vulnerable to wind or passersby knocking it over, or worse, sticky fingers. In some instances I hire an assistant to watch the camera and camp as I run between them. It helps a lot. But for them it is boring as hell.
Rain, extreme temperatures, and wind are the enemies. Rain renders my plates too humid, filters the UV necessary for exposures and puts the camera at risk; it is also unpleasant to shoot in. Under 50 degrees F the chemistry slows down and at high temps my solvents to evaporate to rapidly. And gusts of wind drive me crazy. They have knocked down my camera and dark box and shake the camera during the long exposures (usually > 30 sec) required to make an image. If I am desperate to shoot I resort to securing the camera and dark box with tent stakes and rope.
How do the people you encounter respond to your presence and/or the process they see you navigating? How do they influence your research, your process, or your subjects?
Encountering people, even cops, as I shoot is a big part of the fun. Most are lured over by the strange sight of my set up and, if I am not in the middle of running a plate back and forth, I stop to answer their questions. The best part is showing people the plates I have done – and to show them the crazy way they reverse from positives to negatives, depending if light is reflecting off or going through them. Police or game wardens or security personnel often stop by (maybe the smell of ether, one of the solvents in the collodion, makes them suspicious). Showing them a wet ambrotype usually works to ease their skepticism.
Sometimes people appear in the photos. In almost every instance the person has agreed to hold still on my command as the plate is exposed (remember, the exposures are typically long, so much so that if a figure did not hold still it would not register). Before holding still they have to wait until I get a plate ready (10 minutes or so) and usually, in for a penny, in for a pound, they hang out another 10 -15 minutes more to see the result. I then send them a print of the plates if they are willing to give me an address (most are).
What is it about rivers that keeps you returning to them as subjects? Do you plan to continue photographing rivers?
As I mentioned above I started to photograph the river after I looked at out my studio window for a few years. The studio was located in a former mill, originally powered by the river’s flow, and it was not a stretch to see that much of the history of human habitation in the area was profoundly shaped by and profoundly affected the river. As a relative newcomer to Brunswick, I saw that if I wished to feel a greater connection to the place I was beginning to call home, I needed to know one of its main characters better.
I was also intrigued by its changing nature – how every time I regarded it, I saw something different. Photography, at least for me, is intimately connected to the notion that change, or flux, is a central paradox of our existence. As soon as we try to see and understand the world, it has changed. As soon as I reach for something it has shifted. In its rendering of a slice of time, the photograph frames the conundrum. What you see in an image as stopped or frozen (“captured” as they say) has never really stopped nor will it allow itself to be captured. It feeds with false promises our desire for certainty and stability. It seemed to me that the river was a wonderful embodiment of that notion of flux, and that its flow pertained to the shape and nature of our lives.
I am working right now on a couple other projects that are not about rivers, but are connected to similar questions that the rivers have inspired me to ask.
One is about plastic debris entering the fossil record on the big island of Hawai’i – which also includes stumbling (that verb again) across lava flows, which are wide strips of gnarled rock covering hillsides and remind me of a still photograph of a river’s movement.
The other is a set of images from parks in and around Paris, partially inspired by the photographs of Eugene Atget. In them I try to describe moments of order and entropy in spaces variously tended and manicured, or left, at least for the moment, to run wild.
Do you have any interesting wildlife encounter stories from your years of photographing along rivers?
Yes. I see bald eagles in Maine all the time. I fish the Androscoggin all summer and have pulled out 22” smallmouth bass from its depths. While I in residence at VCCA I had a scare on the James just below the Scotts Mill Dam in Lynchburg. I was playing hooky from photographing on a slightly rainy, overcast day. As I floated in my kick boat with my legs in waders and feet in flippers, I threw a lure into the water. Almost immediately the line felt like it had been hit by a train. Not a regular I-have-a-fish-on-the-line but a what-the-hell-is-down-there, fearing that it would pull me out of my boat and not at all sure I wanted to know what I had snared. Eventually and thankfully, I landed a fat catfish, heart in my throat, but otherwise unscathed.
I also remember setting up my dark box and camera on a slight overpass in Phinizy Swamp Nature Park near Augusta, GA, overlooking the bog with a set of tall cedars outfitted in Spanish moss and a distant elevated walkway for human visitors. One of the park’s biologists came out after a while to ask about my set up. She casually mentioned that the swamp was full of cottonmouths, a venomous species of pit viper, also called a water moccasin. She remarked that they often sunned themselves on the rocks just below the bridge we were standing on. She gestured and I looked. Three large cottonmouths were there, a few feet below the location of my camera. They were still there as I packed up a few hours later.
In LA the river’s flow was slight but always present. In it along some spots where an earthen riverbed persists (Glendale Narrows, Sunnynook) sightings of fish in and birds near the flow were fairly common. I even saw a fly fisher walking toward an eddy late one afternoon as I was packing up.
The ambrotypes are magical to experience in person. Do you have any upcoming shows where readers can see them?
I have a show at the Telfair Museums in Savannah GA running from mid-July to late September this year (2019). It will have 55 ambrotype pieces (singles, diptychs, triptychs, and one five panel panoramic), all from the east coast (Take Me to the River) project. The L. A. River book gets released in May this year (2019) so I hope to have news about exhibitions and events surrounding that publication soon.
Finally, where can our readers find details about your new book, and where is the best place to purchase it?
Title: L. A. River
Publisher: George F. Thompson Publishing
Essayists: Frank Gohlke and D. J. Waldie
It is listed on Amazon, but to avoid using them you can go directly to the book’s distributor, Casemate, or contact me directly through my website, michaelkolster.com.
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